In preparing the last post on disfellowshipping, I spent a good deal of time working out how to apply the procedures Jesus gave us at Matthew 18:15-17 based on the rendering of the NWT,[1] specifically the opening words: “Moreover, if your brother commits a sin…” I was excited to think that this was the process for dealing with sin in the congregation, not just sins of a personal nature as we are taught, but sin in general. I found it very satisfying to think that Jesus gave us this one, simple three-step process to deal with wrongdoers, and that we needed nothing more. No secret three-man committees, no complex elders rule book,[2] no extensive Bethel Service Desk archive. Just one process to handle virtually all contingencies.

You may imagine my disappointment when I later reviewed the interlinear rendering of verse 15 and learned that the words eis se (“against you”) had been omitted by the NWT translation committee—meaning Fred Franz. This meant that there was no specific instruction on how to deal with sins of a non-personal nature; something that seemed odd, since it meant that Jesus left us without specific direction. Still, not wanting to go beyond the things written, I had to adjust the article. So it was with some surprise—a pleasant surprise to be honest—that I received an adjustment in my thinking from a comment placed by Bobcat on the subject. To quote him, it seems that “the words ‘against you’ are not found in some important early MSS (mainly Codex Sinaiticus and Vaticanus).”

Therefore, in fairness, I would like to reconsider the discussion with this new understanding as a basis.

Firstly, it occurs to me that the definition of a personal sin serious enough to warrant disfellowshipping (if unresolved) is highly subjective. For example, if a brother slanders your name, there is no doubt that you would consider this a personal sin; a sin against you. Likewise, if your brother defrauded you of money or some possession. However, what if a brother has sex with your wife? Or with your daughter? Would that be a personal sin? There is no doubt that you would take it very personally, likely more so than in the case of slander or fraud. The lines blur. There is a personal aspect to any sin grave enough to merit the attention of the congregation, so where do we draw the line?

Perhaps there is no line to be drawn.

Those who espouse the idea of an ecclesiastical hierarchy have a vested interest in interpreting Matthew 18:15-17 to rule out all but the most inarguable of personal sins. They need that distinction so that they can exert their authority over the brotherhood.

However, since Jesus gave us only one procedure to follow, I’m more inclined to the idea that it was meant to cover all sins.[3] This will, undeniably, undercut the authority of those who presume to rule over us. To that, we say, “Too bad”. We serve at the pleasure of the King, not mortal man.

So let us put this to the test. Let us say that you become aware that a fellow Christian working at the same company as you is having an affair with an unbelieving co-worker. According to our organizational instructions, you are obliged to report this Witness to the elders. It is important to note that there is nothing in the Christian Scriptures requiring you to become an informant. This is strictly an organizational directive. What the Bible says—what Jesus said—is that you should go to him (or her) personally; one on one. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. There is no need to take this further generally speaking because the sinner has repented and stopped committing the sin.

Ah, but what if he’s only fooling you? What if he says he’ll stop, but really keeps on sinning in secret? Well, wouldn’t that be between him and God? If we are going to worry about such eventualities, then we have to start behaving like spiritual policemen. We’ve all seen where that leads.

Of course, if he denies it and there are no other witnesses, you have to leave it at that. However, if there is another witness, you can then move to step two. Again, you can gain your brother and turn him back from sin at this stage. If so, it ends there. He repents to God, is forgiven, and changes his life course. The elders can be involved if they can be of help. But it is not a requirement. They are not needed to dispense forgiveness. That is for Jesus to do. (Mark 2:10)

Now you may be railing against this whole idea. The brother commits fornication, repents to God, stops sinning, and that’s it? Perhaps you feel that something more is needed, some kind of punishment. Perhaps you feel that justice isn’t served unless there is some retribution. A crime has been committed and so there has to be a sentence of punishment—something so as not to trivialize the sin. It is thinking like this that gives birth to the idea of retribution. In its most extreme incarnation, it produced the doctrine of hellfire. Some Christians revel in this belief. They are so frustrated by the wrongs done to them, that they get great satisfaction in imagining those who have victimized them writhing in pain for all eternity. I have known people like this. They get very upset if you try to take Hellfire away from them.

There is a reason that Jehovah says, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” (Romans 12:19) Frankly, we miserable humans are not up to the task. We will lose ourselves if we attempt to tread on God’s turf in this regard. In a way, our Organization has done this. I remember a good friend of mine who was the congregation servant before the elder arrangement came into being. He was the kind of man who liked to put the cat among the pigeons. When I was made an elder in the 1970s, he gave me a booklet that had been discontinued, but which was formerly given to all congregation servants. It spelled out precise guidelines for how long someone had to remain disfellowshipped based on his/her sin. A year for this, a minimum of two years for that, etc. I got angry just reading it. (I only wish I had kept it, but it someone still has an original, please do a scan and e-mail me a copy.)

The fact is, we still do this to some extent. There is a de facto minimum time that one has to remain disfellowshipped. If the elders reinstate a fornicator in less than a year, they’ll get a letter from the branch office asking for an explanation to justify the action. No one wants to get a letter like that from the branch, so the next time, they’ll be likely to extend the sentence to at least a year. On the other hand, elders who leave the man out for two or three years will never be questioned.

If a married couple get divorced and there is reason to believe that they staged the adultery to give each a scriptural basis to remarry, the direction we get—always verbal, never in writing—is to not reinstate too quickly so as not to give others the idea they can do likewise and get off easy.

We forget that the judge of all mankind is watching and he will determine what punishment to mete out and what mercy to extend. Doesn’t it come down to a matter of faith in Jehovah and his appointed judge, Jesus Christ?

The fact is that if someone continues to sin, even secretly, the consequences are inevitable. We must reap what we sow. That is the principle laid down by God and as such is immutable. One who persists in sin, thinking he is fooling others, is really fooling himself. Such a course will only lead to a hardening of the heart; to the point that repentance becomes impossible. Paul talked about a conscience that had been seared as if by a branding iron. He also spoke of some who had been given over by God to a disapproved mental state. (1 Timothy 4:2; Romans 1:28)

In any case, it appears that applying Matthew 18:15-17 to all types of sin will work and that it provides the advantage of putting the responsibility for watching out for the best interests of our brother right where it belongs, not with some elite group, but with each one of us.

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[1] New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, copyright 2014, Watch Tower Bible & Tract Society.
[2] Shepherd the Flock of God, copyright 2010, Watch Tower Bible & Tract Society.
[3] As discussed in Be Modest in Walking with God there are some sins with are criminal in nature. Such sins, even if dealt with congregationally, must also be passed on to the superior authorities (“God’s ministers”) out of respect for the divine arrangement.